By Danelle C. Forseth & Melissa Luna
In 2019, the American Bar Association (“ABA”) published the report Walking Out the Door: The Facts, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice by Roberta D. Liebenberg and Stephanie A. Scharf.[i] The report was undertaken as part of the ABA’s Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law which explored why big firm women lawyers “are leaving the legal profession when they are in the prime of their careers and should be enjoying the most success.”[ii] The researchers surveyed managing partners and female and male attorneys who were in private practice at National Law Journal 500 law firms for at least 15 years. Seventy percent of respondents were women and 30% of respondents were men.[iii]
Among the survey’s many results were that women report being four to eight times more likely than men to be overlooked for advancement, be denied a salary increase or bonus, be treated as a token representative for diversity, lack access to business development opportunities, be perceived as less committed to her career, and lack access to sponsors.[iv] Additional findings indicate that 21% of women are somewhat or extremely dissatisfied with their job and only 53% of women were satisfied with the leadership of their firm. Among the top reasons women leave the legal profession were caretaking commitments, level of stress at work, and work/life balance.[v]
Melissa Luna and Danelle Forseth proposed writing this article because their experience of practicing law in a rural community has been opposite of the findings of the women attorneys surveyed in the Walking Out the Door report. Not only is there challenging legal work to be performed but they have found building a practice in Idaho’s rural counties is satisfying and permits them to balance their personal responsibilities with their work.
Shortage of Rural Idaho Attorneys
The Professionalism & Ethics Section of the Idaho State Bar (“ISB”) partnered with the Idaho Policy Institute and Master of Public Administration Capstone Class at Boise State University to conduct research about the Idaho State Bar. This research culminated in the publication of Climate of the Legal Profession in Idaho 2020.[vi] It was reported that 38% of ISB members are female and 62% are male. The authors of that publication reported women experience discrimination, harassment, and bullying in the legal profession at significantly higher rates than men.[vii]
Idaho has a total of 5,474 active attorneys of which 4,005 reside or have an office in-state.[viii] Idaho’s Fourth Judicial District represents 2,226 of these active and in-state attorneys, leaving 1,779 attorneys to serve the remainder of Idaho. In comparison, Idaho’s Sixth Judicial District claims 189 active, in-state attorneys. In 2020, the ABA reported “two-thirds of [Idaho] counties (29 of 44) have less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents, including three counties with no lawyers at all and two counties with only one lawyer.”[ix] For every 1,000 residents, Idaho has 2.2 attorneys.[x] The number of attorneys available to enter into attorney-client relationships with local residents shrinks once prosecutors, city attorneys, and county attorneys are subtracted from available attorneys. Further, the “graying of the bar,” or many attorneys who are older and nearing retirement or retiring within the ISB, adds to the scarcity of rural attorneys.[xi]
Opportunity in Idaho’s Rural Counties
Danelle Forseth joined long-time Moscow attorney Ronald Landeck in 2011 full-time after having worked part-time for several years to care for two children until they reached school-age. Melissa Luna joined the law firm in 2015 after working as an in-house civil rights investigator for colleges and universities. She landed in Moscow when her spouse took a position in the region. Danelle recalls:
“Melissa and I graduated from law school together. We had been chatting about job opportunities in Idaho when she said she would be moving to Moscow. I urged her to meet with Ron and me and consider coming to work with us as we had a tremendous need for another attorney to serve our clients. In my experience, there is never a shortage of people or businesses in need of legal assistance in our community.”
Another rural attorney, Susan Wilson, who has mostly practiced as a solo practitioner, also enjoys working in small towns in Idaho. She states:
“I have more than enough clients to support my lifestyle. I think attorneys in small towns will always be busy – just the nature of having a general practice and conflicts of interest with other attorneys – the whole supply and demand model is very much applicable to attorneys and just like any other market restriction, we have conflicts of interests that force involving other counsel. I’m not even talking about litigation – even transactional attorneys, estate planning attorneys, probates, etc. Every area of law.”
In the authors’ practices, there are enough billable hours to cover expenses and pay themselves salaries above the annual mean wage earned by all attorneys in Idaho.[xii] In fact, at different times of the year, they must decline cases to keep their caseloads at a manageable level. In addition, author Melissa has also qualified as a Parenting Coordinator under the Family Law Rules of Procedure and works with parents to make decisions after the entry of a custody decree.
Another local attorney, solo practitioner Jennifer Ewers, offers other types of legal services to the community, such as mediation services. She comments, “As a mediator, I hope I am helping the community by providing a service that allows parties to resolve family law and other disputes in a less contentious and costly forum than court, and that leaves the outcome of the process in their hands.”
In Latah County, Danelle and Melissa are aware of at least three long-time attorneys who have retired or transitioned to “of counsel” status in recent years and have handed the reins over to younger attorneys after a period of time practicing together. This includes their own firm. For the younger attorney, the typical gains are mentorship and a book of business. With the number of Baby Boomer attorneys who are, or who will soon reach, retirement age, they foresee many opportunities for such succession arrangements.
Connection with Community
In a rural community, the authors routinely see how service to residents makes a difference. Danelle explains, “We are invested in our clients’ success; we rely upon, frequent, and enjoy supporting our local business clients on a personal level. By purchasing a book or coffee or enjoying a family meal out at one of our many great restaurants we support our local businesses that contribute to our quality of life.” Melissa agrees and states:
“I feel fortunate to encounter former clients by chance at local events, sometimes at their workplace, or even as they stroll by my home as I am gardening. When we can connect after the high stress of litigation, and I see them or their children doing well, I am reminded of the importance of being a lawyer. Our guidance and compassion at the worst of times is part of a longer experience of adjusting to a different version of their life, often one that is more positive.”
Susan Wilson also sees the value in her services to rural clients. She states, “Just being able to provide resources is hugely valuable to those in a small town; so many of my clients come in just not knowing the first thing about what they need to do, and it doesn’t take much to point them in the right direction, give them peace of mind, or put them at ease.”
Practice in a small town allows many attorneys to provide alternative service arrangements to our clients. “My small-town practice helps me be able to make house calls more so than I would ever be able to do in a larger city. Many of my clients aren’t able to come downtown or climb my stairs – so I often go to them,” notes Susan Wilson. Recently, Danelle arranged to have two witnesses accompany her to a client’s residence to execute a will because the client could not leave a home-bound, incapacitated person.
Mentorship and Collegiality
Danelle feels extremely fortunate to have had several mentors after joining the local legal community. She was a staff-attorney for District Judge, now Justice John Stegner, and worked on a contract-attorney basis with attorney John Norton before joining Ronald Landeck in his legal practice. Danelle says that the experience of receiving the guidance and support of these individuals was invaluable as she began a local legal practice.
Attorney Deb McCormick was admitted to the bar in 2005 and is a solo practitioner. She currently has a public defender contract which includes representing individuals in criminal cases, termination of parental rights cases, and guardianship. She observes about the civility in her rural practice:
“Even the attorneys who are regularly your adversaries in the courtroom are your friends outside the courtroom. It is a very supportive environment. But it also keeps you on your toes! If you are a slacker, everyone is going to know, so it keeps you doing your best. Also unique to small towns is that the judges really get to know the defendants that they see often. Most of my clients believe the judges really care about their well-being, which they do!”
Melissa shares her positive experience as a person of color working in a rural legal community. She states:
“As a person of Mexican-mixed race ancestry, I read the research about the experiences of people of color in the legal industry, and it is often disheartening. As a member of a small firm in which we work collaboratively, and know each other well, I feel respected and that opportunities are open to me. The size of our legal community, including members of my own firm, judges, court clerks, and local attorneys, lends itself to developing positive and collegial relationships; we get to know one another’s talents and stories.”
Quality of Life
Prior to moving to Moscow, Danelle practiced law in Portland, Oregon. The daily commute from home to daycare then to the office was 45 minutes one-way. Practicing law in a small town has provided flexibility as well as a better work-life balance for her. She states, “I can walk up the hill to the high school in a few minutes, watch a student presentation, and be back in the office without losing hours to a commute.” Additionally, because they are in control of their own caseload, Danelle can take the time to attend her kids’ soccer games or track meets. Melissa and Danelle both are able to schedule in fitness routines as well because they control their time, and their workout facilities are within a mile of their office; Danelle leaves the office early for weight training and Melissa comes in late after morning pickleball.
Most of their cases are in Latah County, which has 89 active, in-state attorneys, but now that courts are continuing the use of Zoom for pretrial hearings, they can take more cases in Nez Perce, Idaho, and Clearwater counties.
And, unsurprisingly, they are satisfied with the leadership of their firm because they are the leaders. In fact, every woman attorney quoted in this article owns her firm.
There are certainly difficulties with legal practice in rural counties. For a lawyer who does not join a community by working in an established firm, building a business has its challenges. Jennifer Ewers shares her experience:
“Early on in my solo practice, it was difficult to balance work and personal life because my focus had to be on generating clients and income as I built my practice. I think my kids suffered a bit from my unavailability during that practice-building phase. After establishing a consistent client base, my solo practice has very much allowed me to set my own hours, subject to court hearings and other scheduling out of my control.”
And there is no question there are fewer professional services available for clients that may be needed in relation to a case or general welfare, such as counseling or supervised visitation. Attorney Deb McCormick advises, “Small towns have fewer social resources. As a public defender, many of my clients are in need of resources that just don’t exist in Latah County or are in such short supply that the waiting lists are very long.” Local attorneys are not always able to help their clients access these services. Melissa finds that the collegial relationships among local attorneys, because of the frequency of contact, as well as three years of Zoom hearings, has resulted in an openness to alternative arrangements.
For example, if a client can travel for a psychological evaluation, the court and colleagues are open to testimony from a different location as permitted by court rules. Recently, Melissa and another attorney stipulated the testimony of expert and lay witnesses could occur by Zoom. Local attorneys know and appreciate that we all face barriers because of our location so cooperation is our typical starting point.
Lastly, the authors are not suggesting that they have not encountered sexism in their work. In the Walking Out the Door report, 82% of women attorneys reported they have been mistaken for a lower-level employee whereas 0% of men had that experience.[xiii] Danelle was mistaken as an assistant by older male attorneys early on when she accompanied an older male attorney to meetings. Melissa has been mistaken for an assistant by a few walk-in prospective clients.
Practicing law in one of Idaho’s small communities can afford a legal practitioner the opportunity to create a legal practice that more easily permits commitments outside of work, including personal responsibilities to one’s family and one’s self. Building a practice provides the opportunity to control caseload and time spent in the office. More importantly, working in counties with fewer people draws you into the life of the community in many satisfying and unexpected ways. Attorneys at all career phases, whether starting out or an experienced attorney wanting a change, should consider a practice in one of Idaho’s small towns.
Finding new associates is a constant discussion by attorneys in Latah County and, likely, around the state. Anyone wishing to explore life and practice in Idaho’s rural counties should reach out to members of the local bar association for insight into the particular needs of the region, especially older attorneys who may be interested in developing a succession plan. University of Idaho law students can secure scholarship funds to support internship, externship, or pro bono service in rural communities through the Idaho Heritage Project and use that opportunity as a great way to network in a rural community.[xiv]
The authors and their colleagues quoted in this article have found legal practice in rural Idaho to be satisfying, supportive, and favorable to building work lives that make room for their personal responsibilities and well-being. They hope their experiences inspire others to join them in Idaho’s rural communities.
Danelle C. Forseth and Melissa Luna graduated from Lewis and Clark Law School in 2004 after pursuing careers in other fields. Together they own and manage Landeck | Forseth | Luna, Attorneys at Law, a general civil practice firm. Danelle’s practice primarily includes real property, construction, and estate administration disputes. Melissa’s practice primarily includes divorce, custody, guardianship, and serving as an IRFLP 1002 Parenting Coordinator. Their favorite things about small-town life are knowing the people in their community, the short walk to downtown, and a 90-second commute to the office.
[i] Roberta D. Liebenberg and Stephanie A. Scharf, Walking Out the Door: The Facts, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice, American Bar Association, available at: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/women/walkoutdoor_online_042320.pdf.
[ii] Walking Out the Door, at i.
[iii] Id. at 3.
[iv] Id. at 3-8.
[v] Id. at 12.
[vi] Climate of the Legal Profession in Idaho 2020, Boise State University School of Public Service, available at: https://isb.idaho.gov/wp-content/uploads/Climate-of-the-Legal-Profession-in-Idaho-2020.pdf.
[vii] Climate of the Legal Profession in Idaho 2020, at 15.
[viii] Membership Count and Statuses, Idaho State Bar, available at: https://isb.idaho.gov/licensing-mcle/membership-count-statuses/ (last accessed 8/29/2023).
[ix] ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 2020, American Bar Association, at 2 and 5, available at: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/news/2020/07/potlp2020.pdf. The counties with one attorney are Boise, Butte, and Minidoka. The county with zero attorneys is Camas County.
[x] ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 2020 at 3.
[xi] Beskin, K.V. and Pruitt, L. R., A Survey of Policy Responses to the Rural Attorney Shortage in the United States, UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper Series (May 2021), available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/Delivery.cfm/SSRN_ID3854187_code366600.pdf.
[xii] May 2022 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates – Idaho, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, available at: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_id.htm#23-0000 (last accessed 8/29/2023). The data reports Idaho lawyers are paid an annual mean wage of $96,810.
[xiii] Walking Out the Door, at 7.
[xiv] Idaho Heritage Project, University of Idaho, available at: https://www.uidaho.edu/law/academics/experiential-learning/idaho-heritage-project.